Hemingway cats take the court’s decision lying down

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Key West charms me. People gather in Mallory Square to watch the sun go down each evening, while street vendors, artists and entertainers ply their various trades. Chickens roam the streets, wandering into sidewalk cafes. The number of apparently feral cats makes me uneasy because I worry about the depredation on birds and whether the cats are neutered or spayed, but their presence, along with the chickens, certainly adds to the atmosphere. I feel as if I’ve been transported magically to a Caribbean country without the hassle of a passport.

Hemingway cat

A polydactyl cat takes a cat nap at the Hemingway Home in Key West.

For cat lovers, one of the best attractions in Key West is the Hemingway Home and Museum where a whole bunch, maybe sixty cats roam the grounds and house freely. Forty-something of them are polydactyl cats. A polydactyl cat has more than the normal number of digits on at least one of its paws.

Some of them are the progeny of Snowball, a present from a sea captain to Hemingway. When the estate was sold, the cats remained, and the home and grounds became a museum. The cats became an integral attraction. You encounter them napping here and there or grooming themselves, paying little attention to visitors. When I visited they looked quite contented.

Some years ago someone complained to the US Department of Agriculture, turning the Hemingway cats into a federal case. So for about ten years, the Hemingway Home and Museum has been engaged in a legal wrangle over whether the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) has jurisdiction over these cats.

The museum argued that the cats were of a purely local nature, that they never left the property and were never purchased or sold. The USDA argued that they were used in advertising and promoted in merchandise marketed online, and available for viewing by tourists who come from other states. Thus, the agency said, the Hemingway Home and Museum was involved in interstate commerce and subject to the same laws that govern zoo and traveling circus animals.

According to an article by Warren Richey in the Christian Science Monitor, the USDA said “if the museum wanted to display cats it needed an exhibitor’s license as required under the federal Animal Welfare Act …” and “that it also needed to take action to: Confine the cats in individual cages each night, or construct a higher fence around the property, or install an electric wire atop the existing brick wall, or hire a night watchman to keep an eye on the cats.” Fines could be levied if the museum didn’t comply.

In 2008 the museum increased the height of its fencing because, according to a testimonial on the fencing company’s website, Mike Morawski, CEO of the Hemingway Home and Museum, said, “Our polydactyl descendents [sic] of Ernest Hemmingway’s [sic] own cats have always had the occasional wanderer in their ranks.”

Meanwhile, the museum hired a lawyer and went to court. In December 2012, the 11th Circuit US Court of Appeals handed down its decision.

Spritz, a polydactyl cat

Polydactyl Spritz is up for adoption at Winnie’s Wish in Grand Chain, IL.

In the findings, the court wrote, “The Museum has always kept, fed, and provided weekly veterinary care for the Hemingway cats. The cats live and roam freely on the grounds that are enclosed by a brick fence at the property’s perimeter. To prevent population beyond the historical norm of 50-60 cats, the majority of the cats are spayed or neutered so that only a couple of cats of each sex are reproductive. At the time of the district court’s bench trial, the Museum had 44 Hemingway cats.”

So you see, the case was not about the treatment of the cats, but rather whose jurisdiction they fell under. The decision supported the USDA, saying that the department has the authority to regulate the Hemingway cats.

“Mr. Marowski is pondering whether to appeal to the Supreme Court,” according to Lizette Alvarez, writing in the New York Times.

The Hemingway cats, of course, have taken it all with typical feline felicity. See for yourself if you have the opportunity to visit the Hemingway Home and Museum.

To find a polydactyl cat to adopt just enter polydactyl or extra-toes as the breed in your cat search on Petfinder.